For the rest of us, it was the national day of eating nachos, waiting for Justin Timberlake to disrespect Prince with his halftime show, and, of course, watching the ads that our country’s best marketing minds spent millions and millions of dollars to develop and get in front our of eyeballs.
I have two favorite genres of Super Bowl ad: the ones where the gulf between the supposed wokeness of the ad and the actual wokeness of the company is so wide that you can’t help but laugh out loud, and commercials that are so vacuous and morally bankrupt that they’re instantly memorable.
These are the absolute best of that latter categories. I recommend watching them and trying to visualize just how many highly paid PR professionals had say “yes, this is good,” before these somehow made it to air.
Using a Martin Luther King Jr. Sermon to Sell Pickup Trucks
This was the evening’s controversial standout, other than Timberlake’s horrible rockabilly grunge look. Anyone who has a grade-school level understanding of King knew something wasn’t quite right about using the assassinated civil rights leader’s words—which, because irony is dead, came from an anti-capitalist sermon—to hawk Dodge RAM trucks.
The ad was so poorly received that Ram Trucks had to clarify that it “worked closely with the representatives of the Martin Luther King Jr. estate to receive the necessary approvals,” meaning they got his family’s permission to use the speech. (On Twitter, the King Center, founded by Corretta Scott King, disputed that telling of events.) King’s family is known for being extremely litigious, so much so that for Ava DuVernay’s critically acclaimed film Selma, producers chose to paraphrase and write new speeches rather than chance a lawsuit, as the family had already licensed his speeches to another studio with an MLK biopic in the works. But car money? No problem.
The One Where a Scary Security Check is Really About Sick Kids
“At this year’s Super Bowl, we turned our metal detectors into Hyundai Hope Detectors,” Hyundai’s ad opens, while images of normal, everyday Americans setting off a metal detector and getting pulled out of line flash across the screen.
If you thought to yourself, “what fresh hell is this,” or “this can’t be going anywhere good,” you are right. The participants—including multiple families with young children—are led down a cement hallway to a room that looks like a holding tank. They look exactly as distressed as you would when you’re mentally preparing to have a cavity search in front of your kids. Then, they look even more bewildered when videos start playing from cancer survivors thanking them for doing the good deed of buying a Hyundai.
“Every time you buy a Hyundai, a portion of those proceeds go to childhood cancer research,” these people tell the participants, who we now know are everyday heroes, AKA Hyundai owners. The cancer survivors then come to thank them in person with tears and hugs.
All in all, it’s a deeply emotionally coercive affair. Interestingly enough, none of the unwitting participants in the commercial were wearing hijabs, turbans, or other religious garb that makes those people exceedingly more likely to be racially profiled by security personnel of all stripes, not just at the airport. It’s hard to imagine that wasn’t a very purposeful editorial choice on Hyundai’s part, since the point of the ad, as always, was to sell more cars, not to draw attention to our country’s ever-expanding security state.
The Scientology-Raytheon One-Two Punch
In some markets (like New York City) an ad by from the Church of Scientology was followed directly by one from Raytheon. I cannot find the latter ad on the defense mega-corporation’s verified YouTube page or anywhere on Twitter, but I remember the gut-punch moment of cognitive dissonance at the final revelation of the company behind it.
Only in our late capitalist hellscape could there be a moment so indicative of our current situation: advertising for a cult best known for sitting on a massive, tax-exempt war chest, being founded on a science fiction text, and making your family members shun you stacked right on top of an ad for a company that makes missiles capable of wiping out humanity. There’s no metaphor, it’s real life!
A Song About Kurt Cobain’s Suicide and Cute Babies!
T-Mobile was one of few companies to take a more political tact in its Super Bowl ad campaign, which featured babies of different ethnicities.
As the camera circled around and around these cute little humans—in various states of mad, sad, and happy, as babies often are—the voiceover declared, apparently to the babies: “You come with open minds, and the instinct that we are equal.”
“You’ll love who you want, you’ll demand fair and equal pay, you will not allow where you come from to dictate where you’re going,” the voiceover continues, picking up steam. “You will be heard, not dismissed, you will be connected, not alone.”
All the while, a lullaby version of Nirvana’s “All Apologies”—a song widely interpreted as Kurt Cobain’s swan song before his suicide—plays in the background.
I watched this ad in a state of complete transfixion, like I was having a marketing-induced stroke. It made me contemplate both the beginning of life and my own mortality—which, I guess, is the point of watching the Super Bowl.